SHAN REBELS ON A COLD-WAR FRONTIER
(Probably written mid to late sixties.)
Spread across the mountains and jungles of eastern Burma the Shan rebels have roughly 12,000 soldiers broken up into four main political groups. These are wary of one another and are further split into local commands that collect taxes and fight separately.
The general impression among foreign observers is of a number of splinter groups, following the ancient pattern of Burmese history in which the hill tribe areas react and rebel against a more modern, central Government. But, in fact, the Shans do have a sound constitutional case. They joined the Burmese Federation in 1947 on conditions of democracy, a local Shan council and the right to secede after 1957. But when General Ne Win seized power by coup d’état in 1962 he abolished these conditions, together with the Constitution. Even more important, he started a policy of collectivising land.
Unlike many other regions in Asia, practically every farmer in Kengtung owns his own fields. So nationalisation - which has already started in the main Shan valleys - is not from landlords living off rents, but from tenacious smallholders who have owned their farms for hundreds of years. Nearly every Shan in Kengtung is therefore bitterly opposed to the Burmese and the village headmen have organised their own Government to support the rebels. They collect taxes, and there are usually two or three men with rifles in each village who act as a sort of illegal police. Rebel supplies and messages are carried from village to village by porters and runners, and there are so many volunteer soldiers that no recruits are accepted above the number of guns brought in by the half-yearly convoys.
Even the mountain tribes - the traditional enemies of the Shans – have come over during the last three years, and most of them are now united in opposition to land nationalization.
We were present when a headman from the Ekaw tribe brought in a letter from a local Burmese garrison commander ordering him to prepare lists of land and property - presumably for nationalisation. The headman offered to feed rebel soldiers for the rest of the war.
The Shan rebels have therefore won the most important battle of a guerilla war - the total confidence of the local people. But it is less certain that they will be successful in the later stages. Their recruits are not particularly well trained or armed and the ambushes at which we were present broke off as soon as the Burmese mortars began to strike.
But the Shans say they are deliberately trying to limit the war. They don’t want reprisals on villagers before they are strong enough to take the whole Kengtung region in one campaign. So no attempt is made to concentrate their armies and each commander is left to nurse his own tax region. At this they are extremely skilled.
The Burmese, in fact, barely pretend to govern outside the principal valleys, and even there the garrisons are protected by trenches, machine-gun emplacements and heavy barbed wire.
The fact that for five months a television unit was able to wander freely round Kengtung with its cameras, mule train, and highly noticeable black-bearded foreigners says something for Burmese lack of control and the villagers’ refusal to betray the rebel cause.
Every year Shan convoys go out to buy guns. Every year their armies increase in size. And in a few years, the Burmese will either be outnumbered or will have been forced to increase their garrisons, so straining the already frail Burmese economy.
The position in the Kengtung region is further complicated by the presence of other armies. In t950, some of Chiang Kai-shek’s divisions fled here from Yunan, and though most of these troops have been repatriated and the rest disowned, there are still 5,000 ex-Kuomlngtang in the jungle, heavily armed with mortars, carbines and machine-guns. There are also several "commercial" armies solely occupied with the buying and escorting of opium out of the largest opium-producing area of the world.
The main hope of the Shans is that the Americans will back them with guns and money. But in 1956, the Burmese dealt with the remnants of Chiang Kai-shek’s divisions by calling in the Communist Chinese, and they could do this again with the Shans.
So Kengtung is approaching a classic cold war pattern, and for the future there is the additional issue of the strategic road joining Yunan to Thailand through the region. From this situation, the Chinese, the Thais and even the Burmese might gain; but for the Shans it is hard to see anything other than a bitter future.